As any nimnol on imdb can tell you, THE LADY IN THE WATER is the story of an apartment landlord who one day happens to encounter a water nymph in the building's swimming pool. Mr. Heep (Paul Giamatti) slips and clunks his head on the concrete and falls into the pool; the water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) saves him from drowning. Unfortunately, she's stuck in "this" world unable to return to her blue world until certain actions are taken, certain characters are assembled and a certain ferocious wolfish hyena-like creature is thwarted from preventing Story from returning via a great giant eagle. Now, if this all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, that's because it is. In fact, Paul Giamatti's character only becomes aware of it when a Korean woman in his building tells him the "bedtime story" concerning the narfs (water nymphs) and the scrunts (wolf/hyena creature). It is probably a sad commentary on our current culture that the film died a quick critical and box office death because no one could see the movie for what it was and instead condemned it for what it wasn't. Everybody apparently expects every Shyamalan movie to be THE SIXTH SENSE but THE LADY IN THE WATER isn't THE SIXTH SENSE. That's kinda why it has a different title.
Maybe if Harry Potter had been in the movie it would've been a hit. Suffice it to say that the movie doesn't immediately declare itself as a fantasy fairy tale but instead starts realistically. That is, the director didn't dumb down the movie but instead let the viewer slowly come to the realisation on their own -- which is frankly what Shyamalan seems to do in all his movies. He doesn't club you over the head with obvious "this is a horror movie" or "this is a fairy tale" tropes which allow the viewer with no attention span to get an easy handle on what they're going to see. Shyamalan seems to believe in the old theory that a movie is a collaborative effort between the filmmaker and the audience; he doesn't want us to sit by passively slack-jawed with our popcorn buckets but instead he wants us to actually PAY ATTENTION and engage our minds and imaginations in the images he's placed up there on the screen.
Apart from the obvious "bedtime story" aspects of the film, THE LADY IN THE WATER also has many moments of humour, self-referential filmic tropes, suspenseful horror-film-type scenes and emotional tenderness. The vast amount of characters in the film are all nicely drawn and distinctive and, frankly, one wishes that the movie had been longer so one could get to see more of them. As in any fairy tale or myth telling, the events are never fully explained but need to be just accepted as occurring. Do we sit and wonder how exactly it is possible for Athena to be born out of Zeus' head?!? Of course not. We just accept it and get on with the tale. And as a "bedtime story", the film probably confused people by presenting "unrealistic" things as matter-of-factly occurring during the course of the movie. For instance, Paul Giamatti dives into the swimming pool, finds a grate at the bottom, removes it, swims into an sub-room that obviously was used by Story, looks through a collection of objects, finds a medicinal "clay" to help heal her, etc. etc. . . .all of which goes on MUCH too long for a chap to realistically hold his breath. This is probably the point where an unimaginative viewer would say "Oh come on" and switch off. And in a "realistic" movie, perhaps he would be correct to do so. But by this point it is crystal clear that this is no "realistic" movie but something like a myth or fairy tale and it would frankly be stupid to become hung up on something like that after already accepting that there is a blue world full of water nymphs who pop out of swimming pools! If you can't make that leap of the imagination, I truly weep for you.
THE LADY IN THE WATER was, I have to admit, a complete surprise to me. I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did. I've also recently seen THE HAPPENING which is not as good a film by any means. However, I will admit to having watched THE HAPPENING twice already, and I may even watch it again -- because I found it to be an extremely odd movie with something very "off" about it but I still can't figure out what. I was also intrigued by the very strange way Shyamalan directed THE HAPPENING; almost as if he wanted to forcibly take the viewer "out of" the movie every single time they were drawn into it. But that's a story for another time. Suffice it to say that THE LADY IN THE WATER is a much better film (in my humble) and I would recommend that anyone tired of the same old everyday Hollywood claptrap might want to give it a try. Go on . . . dip your big toe in. The water's fine.